‘History is written by the victors’. So it is disappointing many commentators fail to follow this through and challenge the bias inherent in a ‘victorious’ narrative. The historiography of the ‘Silk Road’ is a significant case in point. Originating in Central Eurasia as small-scale tracks on the steppes, the route developed into the pre-industrial world’s most momentous, extensive and productive network of commerce and culture, yet is all too often misrepresented as a manufactured highway whose sole purpose was to bridge the ‘gap’ between the powerhouses of Europe and the riches of the China. Over time, this had led to the build-up of a series of misleading misconceptions in need of re-examination. 

Road or Roads?

The term ‘Silk Road’ is relatively new, dating from the nineteenth century, but it is perhaps indicative that it was coined by a European explorer, Baron Von Richtofen.  Illustrious geographers indigenous to the region (and there were plenty of them) never described it as such at the time. To his credit, the uncle of World  War One’s Red Baron used the plural ‘silkenstrassen’ as often as the singular, since he appreciated that he was dealing with an intricate web of trading posts rather than a single autobahn bulldozing its way the length of Asia. Nevertheless, Von Richtofen was writing from a distinctly ‘Occidental’ point of view. Just as in his mind the Mediterranean World eclipsed all others in the evolution of civilisation, so he assumed his newly-labelled trade route must have been designed to transport ‘Oriental’ luxuries to the markets of all-conquering Europe. Unfortunately, this romantic vision of caravans crossing sandy deserts, camels laden with bales of silk, proved irresistible, and has obscured much. In truth, the ‘Silk Roads’, for if we are to use the term it must surely be in the plural, were a complex and ever-changing jigsaw of local trading routes, large and small, interconnecting the nomadic tribes of Eurasia’s steppes and deserts with their neighbours in the continent’s sophisticated urban centres. 

Valerie Hansen convincingly demonstrates in her recent The Silk Road: A New History that, no matter which century we look at, almost all the archaeological evidence points to trade being carried out in extended chains made up of small merchant caravans travelling to and fro across their ‘patch’. Primary literary sources likewise indicate that there was no contemporary concept of a single, consistent route. Merchants such as the Polos attempting the entire route in one go (if indeed they did* ) were very much the exception rather than the norm.

Smooth as Silk?

There is no denying that some silk came to Europe from China via the Silk Roads, even if it did change hands many times along the way. Yet that certainly isn’t the whole story. Firstly, China was as happy exporting its silk by sea, in the boats and dhows of the Silk Roads’ littoral cousin, the ‘spice route’. Secondly, silk was merely one of a host of different goods to be traded along our route. Slaves, for example, were just as crucial a commodity. Thirdly, this network was not just about produce, it also formed a key conduit for peoples, ideas, religions and culture. So alongside glass, paper and jade, came the likes of Jews, Huns and Scythians, with the direction as frequently east as west (in some cases it could even be north or south). And alongside conquerors, refugees and slaves, came Buddhism, Islam and Christianity (Peter Frankopan provides a complete picture of this to-ing and fro-ing in his Silk Roads: A New World History).

The importance of the Bombyx mori (and China) is further diminished when we consider the profusion of ‘wild silk’ (grown in India, Persia and Greece). This may have been of inferior quality but, being cheaper, was no less popular. What’s more, archaeological evidence indicates that the vast majority of Chinese silk garments found in Europe and the West were manufactured by Byzantine, Persian or Central Asian, rather than Chinese, artisans – another reminder of how critical a role the ‘gap’ played. 

One extra caveat comes from Chinese history itself. Xuan Zang tells of a Han princess sent to marry a Khotanese prince in the 5th century. Appalled at the idea of being stranded in a foreign land so far from home, she secretly hid silkworms and mulberry seeds in her hair, so as to produce her own silk in exile. An apocryphal tale maybe, but it leads to the drawing of two conclusions, both supported by several other pieces of evidence: that after the 5th century AD (i.e. for half of the Silk Roads period), sericulture was no longer a secret known only to the Chinese, and that for most of its life Khotan (like the other oases of the Taklamakan), was considered ‘foreign’ by the Chinese part of the Central Asian world, not China.

East meets West?

Pull out the map. Not a modern political map of Asia but maps of the whole Eurasian landmass through the centuries (Christopher Beckwith provides a more than ample collection in his Empires of The Silk Road). What strikes, again and again, is how peripheral European states tended to be and how small China usually was. Take away Tibet, Qinghai province, Xingjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Manchuria, and the observer starts to realise that for much of its history China consisted of little more than its Han heartland. In contrast, Central Asia and Persia were massive; great green and pink splodges that together form an enormous beating heart. Empires of the steppe covered not just West Turkestan (roughly the modern-day ‘Stans’), but East Turkestan (north-west China plus Mongolia), most of Russia east of the Urals, and much of the territory north of the Black Sea. Similarly, the frontiers of successive Persian Empires regularly stretched from the Mediterranean to northern India, and shouldn’t be confused with the borders of modern-day Iran. ‘Tajik’, after all, means ‘Persian-speaker’ and historically Tajik cities, such as Samarkand and Merv, were to be found across Central Asia, not just in what is modern-day Tajikistan. 

With this in mind, shouldn’t Europe be reduced to a ‘supporting’ role? If, in their heyday, the cities of Bukhara, Balasagun, Baghdad and Balkh were as powerful and rich as Brussels and Barcelona, is it too hard to believe that they were the centre of the Silk Roads and major trading destinations in their own right, rather than stepping stones between East and West? 

Does China deserve similar treatment? Like Von Richtofen, Chinese annalists pressed readers to believe the ‘Start’ of the Silk Roads was the ancient capital of Chang’an/Xi’an (something the country’s tourism industry pushes equally bluntly today). They also promoted the notion that historically ‘China’ extended to not only what amounts to its present borders but beyond. Yet ‘frontier’ gates at Dunhuang, Jiayuguan and elsewhere along The Great Wall tell a very different story, and in reality, a ‘web’ of Silk Roads could never have a ‘beginning’ or an ‘end’. 

Mind the ‘gap’

For the two thousand years that the Silk Roads flourished, it thus appears their routes belonged to neither Occident nor Orient, but rather Central Eurasia, born out of a delicate balance between the needs of nomad and city-dweller. It was because this symbiotic relationship was so successful that the network grew and stretched to encounter (and sometimes encompass) other trading empires, whether Ancient Rome, Tang China or Mauryan India. Such superpowers were, of course, ultimately important players in the Silk Roads’ sustained success, but we must resist temptation to put the cart before the horse. The ‘gap’ was no void, rather the hive of activity upon which the whole enterprise was based.

Sceptics would do well to consider the so-called ‘death’ of the great land routes. Tradition dictates that the moment in 1498 that Vasco Da Gama landed in Calicut, the fate of the Silk Roads was sealed, doom and oblivion beckoned. Yet did not the Junghars of 17th century Central Asia oversee a booming trade empire; were not the 16th century Safavids (and their wondrous new capital at Esfahan) an economic and cultural match for any of their Persian predecessors? The answer, as always, lies with the central Eurasians themselves. China and Europe may have been responsible for many goods (including silk) that made their way across the continent, be it as trade, tribute to neighbouring kingdoms, or payment for far-flung garrisons, but Central Eurasian merchants negotiated their safe passage. It was Sogdian, Kushan and Uighur glue that stuck the Silk Roads together. 

Paul Wilson is the author of The Silk Roads guide book (Trailblazer), and The Alphabet Game (Hertfordshire Press). He is an advisor to the UNWTO’s Silk Road Project and regularly speaks at the Open Central Asia Literary Festival.

WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #25 SPRING 2017  text by Paul Wilson